New Figuration. Notes Fifty Years Later
(versión en español)
In August of 1961, after having organized a call for submissions, Deira, Macció, Noé and de la Vega proposed and carried out the exhibition entailed Otra figuración at the Peuser gallery in Buenos Aires. When the time came, they stated their intention: “We are a group of painters who, in our expressive freedom, feel the need to incorporate the freedom of the figure.”
At the time of that founding exhibition that marked the beginning of a vertiginous series of shows that took place until 1965—when the group that had existed de facto for four years dissolved—each artist issued his own statement. In any case, their work in the years following 1961 exceeded the expectations of that original statement.
Expressive freedom and freedom of the figure. Two modern demands that these painters had achieved for themselves from the beginning. Their point of departure was freedom from tradition and from a certain local figuration that was not popular among artists concerned with renovating artistic languages. The 1950s was a decade concerned with the affirmation of post-geometric, subjective, lyrical abstraction. Since the beginning, the constructivist avant-gardes of the 1940s had declared, albeit from another position, that “All realism is false.”(1) These Neo-Figurative artists seem to have experienced this “falsehood” as the depletion of models, and to have turned it into the basis of transformation. In the four years after the Otra figuración exhibition, Deira, Macció, Noé and de la Vega conceived of much more than that group exhibition foretold. Though the main players in that initial moment, they themselves may not have fully known the ultimate causes for their actions. These four artists, along with others, were the protagonists of a change in era, for this was truly the end of an age. The speed and urgency of their action did not allow for the reflection possible today, from a broader perspective.
“Their paintings could be defined . . . in terms of Expressionism and Informalism . . . But those two references would not suffice to classify the peculiar attitude of these painters or the most profound characteristics of their languages.”
Hugo Parpagnoli, “La otra figuración,” Sur, 1962.
The emergence of the group that would later be called Nueva Figuración was either anticipated by or simultaneous with gestures and actions that some historians chose to call “‘new art’—a term that critics of the time used to refer to countless different expressions that started taking place in approximately 1956.”(2) Some of these works were created by artists who would eventually form part of or be associated with the Informalist Movement (like Kenneth Kemble, Alberto Greco and Luis A. Wells); others by independent artists (Rubén Santantonín, Emilio Renart and Marta Minujín, for instance). It matters little today what category these artists belonged to; indeed, they did not belong to any order, but rather subscribed to another sort of artistic impulse that attempted to undermine the reigning inclination in order to find new paradigms operative locally and in other major centers of Western art. Fifty years later, it is still necessary to clear up a misunderstanding: neither Deira, Macció, Noé and de la Vega nor any of the other artists crucial to this rupture came onto the art scene in order to impose a definitive artistic language. On the contrary, they attempted to shake up staid models and attitudes and to embark on a sometimes desperate and angst-ridden search for new possibilities for art, ones hitherto unknown or little explored.
“They don’t represent what’s over there, legislated and crumbling to pieces, but rather their own birth as well as the birth of language not learned,” reaffirmed, in other words, Parpagnoli.(3)
Only later would the testing of multiple oppositions and dialectical syntheses lead to very personal artistic formulations on the part of the members of the Nueva Figuracion group and other artists working at that time. Nonetheless, there was a certain collective atmosphere and impulse. On still surface-level and unknown bases, the emergence of new languages operated like a symphony, with orchestra conductors coordinating a change in era. A Babel of languages emerged.
This did not keep some from holding tight onto something that they believed was a formula or set procedure, and history will remember those lesser cases differently.
Another misunderstanding that came hand in hand with the one previously mentioned, and that persists into the present, is the belief in the exchange of influences of inherited or imported languages, whether from the CoBrA group, Willem de Kooning, Jean Dubuffet or others. Along with these and other international artists, Argentine New Figuration formed part—and largely occurred alongside—the violent explosion that shook the West in the second half of the 20th century with its attendant consequences and expressions in the sphere of culture.
Many artists felt the impact, and the last thing they set out to do was establish a sole language. One of the primary traits of the period was a marked collective impulse, which affected all forms of cultural production.
Though some critics of the day did not understand what this new opening was about, the writings of others, like Hugo Parpagnoli, Jorge Romero Brest and Aldo Pellegrini, attest to the fact that they sensed its importance.
Local and International Context. Leap into the Void(4)
“In all respects, art is a thing of the past. As such, it has lost for us authentic truth and vitality.”
G. W. F. Hegel, Introduction to Aesthetics, 1973.
Fifty years later, it is necessary to take stock once again of the horizons and concepts that would lead to a scheme for assessing the legacy of the Nueva Figuración group during the period that it was together.
Some of the references that aid, though by no means exhaust, an explanation of the emergence of the group include hermeneutics, reception aesthetics, the historical context—from the post-War period to the Cuban Revolution on an international level, and in Argentina from the fall of Juan D. Perón in 1955 to a year before the coup of General Juan C. Onganía.
In the mid-1940s, with the end of the Second World War, the traditional conception of the work of art in the West—that is, painting and sculpture—began to lose its identity as such. The depletion of the painting processes that had begun in the Renaissance started to make itself felt. As modernism in art came to an end, a passage into postmodernism took place. This meant the appearance of new paradigms and ways of approaching and understanding artistic phenomena, giving rise to the contemporary in art. Many called this “the death of art.”
The Buenos Aires scene saw an inevitable explosion that had specific local characteristics while also partaking of certain aspects of the situation generated in other international centers. Artists felt the need to assume vital attitudes in constructing their works. Though this was a multi-dimensional process in which artists with an array of different orientations took part, the tacit—if not necessarily conscious—objective of most was the loss of identity and the shift from the traditional art object. Informalism, Rubén Santantonín’s Arte Cosa (Thing Art) and Emilio Renart’s Biocosmos, among others, not only exceeded any art orthodoxy, but also constituted facets of a single major event with neo-Dadaist underpinnings, one unprecedented on the local art scene. Kenneth Kemble was the driving force behind the 1961 Arte destructivo exhibition, a combination of installation and sound intervention. Later, Luis Wells found himself impelled to go beyond his relief-objects and move into architecture, intervening on ceilings and other elements. The specificity of the work of art had been abolished by impulses to innovate established art canons in favor of a neo-avant-garde spirit.
This increasing anarchical movement is usually considered to have begun in 1956 and concluded in 1965. This was the context for the works and actions of the members of the Nueva Figuración group, who formed part of this larger collective moment.
New Figuration in Context
In Buenos Aires, Ernesto Deira defined the aforementioned depletion of modernism by saying, “Since the Second World War, there had been an explosion in painting.” For Noé, who theorized his own work and the work of the group, this specific moment in the history of 20th-century art was the end of the “striptease of the Goddess Painting.” For Noé, that “divinity” represented the painting tradition starting in the Renaissance, with its centralized perspective, illusionist space, volumetric treatment of forms, drawing that marked the limit of volumes and subordinate use of color. The deconstruction of these conventions—that is, the striptease—began with early 19th-century Romanticism and ended in the mid-20th century when, according to Noé, the sole brushstroke and the gesture behind it seemed to shout out, “Painting is nude!”
Argentina had never had an artist like Marcel Duchamp or a movement like Dadaism to instigate a revolution within the art institution and, in turn, give rise to the notion of anti-art. Instead, there was a chain of events, and the neo-Figurative artists deeply and consistently questioned the institution of painting. The aim of the group was to pursue a new image of the human being (of “man,” as they said in those years) and its context. This “explosion of painting” combined a broad range of elements.
Towards the Encounter with Another Image of the Human Being
After the Second World War, the Holocaust and the atom bomb, a change of consciousness took place throughout the world.(5) It is inconceivable that that change not imply a shift in the conception and in the image of the human being, specifically in terms of art, the world over. This shift was so significant, though, that it was not restricted to the art world; it was reinforced by reality and by human thought.
In August of 1959, Peter Selz curated the New Image of Man exhibition at the New York Museum of Modern Art. Clearly, the museum understood that the topic it was dealing with went beyond the artistic: it requested that Paul Tillich, one of the most influential 20th-century Protestant theologians, write the first prologue to the catalogue. Tillich’s text approached the exhibition and its concern not only in terms of art, but also anthropology, history and philosophy. Tillich saw the early 20th century as a period of accentuated change in art, and its tendencies as drastically transforming the image of man. He discussed some of the causes for this shift in the representation of the human being: danger of dehumanification, thingification, mass use of technology, indifference to the meaning of human existence(6) and so forth. Lastly, Tillich discussed the fact that it was impossible for artists to return to naturalist or idealist representations of the human figure. Pertinent to this was Noé’s often announced rupture with the traditional unity of the painting, a canon whose origin lay in the Renaissance here applied to the space of the support and its relationship to the viewer. Selz affirmed something similar: “Instead of a canon of ideal proportions, we are before what Nietzsche called ‘the eternal wounds of existence’.”(7)
Once again, the vision of the human figure as a self-enclosed whole was refused. Initially on the basis of the actual making of art, the figure was opened up and rendered the lyrical transcription of the states of the soul.(8) This formal opening and abandonment of the limits of the figure, among other things, demonstrated another self-conception on the part of the human being. In the early 20th century, Surrealism effected a 180-degree turn in the object of vision: it moved the gaze, which for centuries of Western figuration had rested on “the exterior landscape,” to “the interior landscape” within the human being. “The source of the Surrealist embracing of the dark side of human nature lay in Nietzschean romanticism,”(9) states Barbara Rose. Informed by Dadaism, the Surrealists began the task of rupturing the status quo, and that entailed aspiring to a more integral configuration of the human being, one that included that “dark side” that had not been fully externalized by art in its 500-year tradition.
But in that half a century, the shift in art had become existential as well. If for at least fifty years the Apollonian image of the human being had been eclipsed by more or less revolutionary artistic tendencies, this trend was now heightened by Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung’s discoveries in relation to the functioning of the human psyche. Jung discovered, for instance, what was called “the shadow,” one of the most hidden features of personality. Between fragmentation and integration, the emergence of a new image of the human being, or at least a conception of that image as in conflict, was imminent.
(1) Edgar Bayley, in Nelly Perazzo, El arte concreto en la Argentina, Buenos Aires: Ediciones de Arte Gaglianone, 1983, p. 55.
(2) Marcelo E. Pacheco, “De lo moderno a lo contemporáneo. Tránsitos del arte argentino, 1958-1965,” in Inés Katzenstein (ed.), Escritos de vanguardia. Arte argentino de los años 60, Buenos Aires: Fundación Espigas, 2007.
(3) Hugo Parpagnoli, Deira, Macció, Noé, de la Vega (exhib. cat.), Buenos Aires: Galería Bonino, October 15–30, 1962.
(4) This title was used by Paul Schimmel, who organized the exhibition Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object 1949–1979, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1998, for the main text in the catalogue for that exhibition; the title also alludes to the work by Yves Klein of the same name (1960), p. 17.
(5) Paul Schimmel, op. cit., p. 17.
(6) Paul Tillich, “A prefatory note by Paul Tillich,” in New Image of Man, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, reprint ed., 1969, p. 9.
(7) Peter Selz, “Introduction,” in New Image of Man, op. cit., p. 11.
(8) Frederico Morais, Grafico Arte Moderna-Arte Posmoderna, Rio de Janeiro, 1977.
(9) Barbara Rose, “Introduction,” in Malcolm Haslam, The Real World of the Surrealists, New York: Galley Press, 1978, p. 6.